March 31, 2013
Religious and Ethnic Groups
The Mahayana (Sanskrit: “Greater Vehicle”) movement arose within Indian Buddhism around the beginning of the Common Era and became by the 9th century the dominant influence on Buddhist cultures of Central and East Asia. The movement is characterized by a grandiose cosmology, often complex ritualism, paradoxical metaphysics, and universal ethics. Buddhism sees the world as a realm of transmigration, or reincarnation (samsara), from which one may escape by attaining nirvana. The Mahayana tradition is less on nirvana and more on knowledge or wisdom, the mastery of which constitutes awakening. The philosopher Jnagarbha in the 8th century, the doctrine of the Two Truths, absolute truth (paramarthasatya) and conventional truth (samvritisatya), resolves the apparent conflict by stating that ultimately things do not exist as they seem. The universal accessibility of awakening together with the idea that the universe has no beginning in time and is filled with an infinite number of beings and of worlds. The conclusion that there are an infinite number of buddhas, each dwelling in their own realms. The theory of karma dictates that only an individual’s own actions can affect his/her future, evidence illustrates the early existence of the idea of the transfer of merit, ultimately leading to their liberation. The Madhyamika, founded by the Indian monk and philosopher Nagarjuna (150-c. 250 ce), is a systemization of the Prajnaparamita (“Perfection of Wisdom”), which emphasizes the doctrine of wisdom (prajna) and is the most important of the six perfections. The others are charity (dana), discipline (hila), flexibility (kanti), energy (virya), and meditative (dhyana). Central to Mahayana ideology is the idea of the bodhisattva, one who seeks to become Buddha. Mahayana teaches that anyone can aspire to achieving awakening (bodhicittot-pada) and there by become bodhisattva. Awakening consists of understanding the true nature of reality. They are thus “self-less,” both philosophically, in the sense of understanding the absence of self or essence in all things and persons, and they act for all beings without discrimination.
The Mahayana, (“Great Vehicle”), is more diverse and liberal; found mainly in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, and among Tibetan people. In recent times, Mahayana has gained followers in the West. It is virtually impossible tell the size of the Buddhist population today. As of 2004, Buddhist worldwide estimation was 376 million.
Throughout Asia, wherever Buddhism was introduced, the leaders would seek support from kings and other rulers of the state. This was a symbiotic relationship in which, in exchange for allegiance and religious support of the sangha, the emperor became a patron and backer of Buddhist dharma.
Traditionally, Buddhist monks were celibate. They depended on the faithful not only for food and financial support but also for new recruits. Children would enter the monastery and spend a number of years as novices, studying, learning, and doing chores. Following ordination, they became full members of the community, vowing to uphold its discipline. Their days are filled with ritual, devotions, meditation, study, teaching, and preaching. Twice a month, all the monks gather for recitation of the rules of the order (pratimoksha) and the confession of any violations to the rules.
Buddhist practices have been increasingly challenged by the advances of secularization and Westernization in Asia. Various modern Buddhist leaders have tended to deemphasize the popular Buddhist practices and expressions of faith and to stress the more rational aspects of Buddhist thought as well as meditation. Tibetan, Theravada, and Japanese sects have firm toeholds in America and Western Europe.
From India, where it began, the Buddha’s teachings spread to north and east China, Tibet, Mongolia, parts of Russia, Korea,...